"Steam Detectives" takes place in Steam City, on an alternate Earth where the only power source is coal. Apparently forgetting that gasoline can be made from coal, scientists there instead focused almost exclusively on steam power, and as a result made a "quantum leap" in the technology, meaning of course
that they learned how to build giant robots. As you might expect, one of the favorite past-times of the people who own these robots is stealing stuff and busting up the place, which is made a little easier by the fact that the city is constantly draped in a white mist
that helps disguise their nefarious activities. It's steampunk minus the punk.
Attempting to combat these criminals is Narutaki, an adolescent detective who lives with his nurse, butler, and, yes, giant robot. You see, Narutaki's parents were wealthy detectives and they were killed, and well, whatever, the point is that Narutaki is a kid that runs around stopping thieves and fighting comic book-type villains.
Despite the lack of a secret identity, the setup sort of sounds like Batman with giant robots—except that there was already a Batman with giant robots and it was called "The Big O." In reality, there have been so many anime series with giant robots in the past that I couldn't begin to force myself to be interested in any of the robot battles here, since they didn't offer anything particularly new or innovative.
So what we're left with is the mystery part. Now, I recognize that this show is aimed at young boys, but most of the mysteries here aren't terribly mysterious. A new character shows up, acts completely innocent, and then, shockingly, they're revealed as the perpetrator. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure it out. Then they unleash this longwinded explanation of why they did it—usually it goes back to their childhood. Because of such obvious solutions, there's rarely any actual "deduction" involved, a la Sherlock Holmes. Far from being a genius,
Narutaki's really just the only one who has any common sense around this place.
And that's really the main problem with the show: the entire universe revolves around this kid detective. You get the feeling that if he were somehow plucked away, the other characters (including the villains) would just sort of cease to exist. Compare to Batman: if Bruce Wayne disappeared, you can see the other characters going on with their lives. Robin would still be fighting crime. Commissioner
Gordon would still be taking down mob bosses. Heck, even Alfred would find something to do. But in the world of "Steam Detectives," everyone is defined through their relationship with Narutaki, and never through each other. They're one-dimensional, and so you never really care what happens to them. Even the police, with whom other fictional detectives
routinely come into conflict, get along great with this kid.
I think the other real issue with the show is Narutaki's age, or how his age is handled, anyway. Instead of pairing him with girls that are 12 or 13, girls in their late teens or even in their twenties are shown having an interest in him. The main offender is Narutaki's big breasted, not-that-bright nurse, Ling Ling. She's 16, but she obviously has it pretty bad for her 12-year-old employer, and the series plays up her jealousy and his obliviousness as much as possible. None of the girls ever act on it much more than a kiss on the cheek, of course, but... yeah, still creepy.
That's not to say I totally hated the series, although the first half was pretty tedious. One of my favorite episodes is "Narutaki vs. Ling Ling: A Tiny Battle" and occurs near the middle of the 26-episode run. It's a comedy episode—the series works best when it's being silly—and it revolves around a trivial, unspoken argument that the two are having. Nothing really happens in the episode, but that's part of the charm. I wish the rest of the series were more like it.
Unfortunately, anime and manga writers usually feel the need to have Really Bad Things happen at the end of their shows, and "Steam Detectives" is no exception; the last five or six episodes get much darker than the rest of the series, almost inappropriately so. You gotta wonder—is it part of the Japanese psyche or has it just become a staple of the medium? A friend and I used to have a running joke where we would ask how a particular anime series ended, and the response would always be, "Everybody dies!" It's funny to a point, but it's also annoying after seeing it happen in show after show. Of course, not everybody dies here, but it's a cheap device to try to move from melodrama to drama. It doesn't work, but I will admit that the show did finally become interesting when the stakes were raised.
There's a moderate amount of pixellation and the black levels are relatively poor.
English 5.1 or Japanese 2.0 with subtitles. The Japanese actors did an acceptable job, but some of the English choices (for example, the
Machine Baron) were, while interesting, a little strange.
There was also a quality assurance error with all the discs where the music subtitles (and only the music subtitles) would switch on whenever a song with lyrics came on, even if you had all subtitles turned off. If you watch without subtitles, that can become really irritating.
The music, incidentally, consists almost entirely of free-wheeling jazz, which is
usually completely out of place for any given situation in the show. Whenever the action seemed to crank up, the music had a tendency to suddenly switch gears and slow way down, killing all tension. Plus, it mostly feels like a poor imitation of "Cowboy Bebop," the series that pretty much defined how jazz should be used in anime. "Bebop" also had quite a few more songs at its disposal and so it didn't have the problems of repetition that are found here. "Amazing Grace" is also used on an annoyingly frequent basis.
Packaging and Menus:
Five black thin-packs in a sturdy gray, black, and white box of the same type used for shows like "GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka" and "FLCL." Menus are simple and static. I do appreciate the fact that I can skip directly to them. The chapter skips are in helpful places, but it would be nice if you could access a chapter list for each episode directly from the main menu.
"Steam Detectives" is just too clichéd and mediocre to spend your time and money on. Apparently ADV felt the same way; they didn't even bother to put a single extra on the set. Skip it.